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Ethical Treatment of Animals (July 2015): Laboratory Experimentation

By Walter Hogan and Eric Owen

Laboratory Experimentation

The number of animals killed for laboratory use represents a tiny fraction of the number consumed as food, and most experimental animals are small birds, fish, and mice rather than large, charismatic creatures.  Nevertheless, experimentation is a hot-button issue that resonates with animal sympathizers (even those with carnivorous tendencies).  The American guidelines for animal experimentation are outlined in The IACUC Handbook, edited by Jerald Silverman, Mark Suckow, and Sreekant Murphy.  The Handbook features thirty-one articles by expert contributors on all aspects of the care and use of laboratory animals.

Donna Yarri’s The Ethics of Animal Experimentation: A Critical Analysis and Constructive Christian Proposal notes a scarcity of advocates for either extreme—unfettered experimentation or total abolition.  Thus, the debate mainly is over the kind and number of constraints to be placed on a practice that is unlikely to be eliminated in the foreseeable future.  Yarri notes that pro-experimentation advocates tend to trumpet the alleged benefits of research while ignoring or minimizing the suffering of animal subjects.  She urges much greater consideration of the cost to animals, and proposes a number of reforms that would substantially reduce experimentation.

The Animal Research War is an assertive presentation of the other side of the debate, by P. Michael Conn and James Parker, administrators of the Oregon National Primate Research Center during a period when they and their institution were attacked by animal rights advocates.  They describe the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, amended later with the introduction of IACUCs (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees).  They assert that researchers must comply with demanding standards, that their research must be humanely practiced and essential for human progress, and that animal rights activists are naïve, misguided, and criminally destructive.

In addition to books advocating for or against animal experimentation, some balanced studies of the practice have been published.  Animal Experimentation, edited by Susan Hunnicutt, offers a half-dozen pairs of pro-and-con essays offering undergraduates a basic introduction to both sides of the experimentation debate.  In The Sacrifice, Lynda Birke, Arnold Arluke, and Mike Michael conduct an ethnographic survey of the culture of animal experimentation laboratories, studying the inculcation of students into the experimentation ethos, and the differing attitudes of scientists and technicians.  This objective analysis of a controversial workplace illuminates an otherwise hidden battle over public opinion.  Robert Hubrecht’s The Welfare of Animals Used in Research is another balanced study, primarily of British animal research facilities and practices.  Hubrecht notes that the downward trend in total animal use recently has been reversed, as large numbers of mice and fish are now being sacrificed for research in genetic modification.

In addition to the animals experimented on in corporate and academic research facilities, many small animals are still being killed and preserved for dissection in secondary school biology classes.  Why Dissection? by Lynette Hart, Mary Wood, and Benjamin Hart provides historical background, thorough coverage of the current biology classroom environment, and resources for teachers, administrators, parents, and students.  Current technology is available to replace dissection with clinical experiences, computer software, and other resources, but many school systems lack the knowledge, infrastructure, or funding to convert.  Complementing Hart’s book is Animals in Schools by Swedish education researcher Helena Pedersen.  Pedersen's book is concerned not with the bodies of animals, but with the ways in which humankind’s various engagements with animals are presented to schoolchildren.  Her book is an excellent resource for educators wishing to introduce their pupils to human-animal interactions in a thoughtful and informed manner.

Works Cited